Cloud Atlas: Queering Space & Time
April 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
Let’s be honest. Cloud Atlas — both Cloud Atlas the book and “Cloud Atlas” the movie — is dense. It’s complicated, and it’s almost dizzying in scope. I know of no other work of art that has covered as many facets of the human experience: life and death, love and greed.
The book is a masterpiece, and yet author David Mitchell said writing it was like a “walk in the park” compared to the Wachowskis’ work in filming the movie. In using the same actors in multiple roles (see chart below) while shooting in three different countries, the directors needed to create a detailed filming schedule. In addition to disguising actors as different genders, ethnicities, and ages, the directors also re-purposed buildings and interiors to give viewers an uncanny sense of familiarity across the changing time periods and plots.
Not surprisingly, the movie was so confusing to most viewers that it flopped at the box office, exceeding its production budget by only $28 million (in comparison, the first Matrix film netted nearly $400 million). Indeed, when I went to see the film on Election Day in 2012, less than a dozen people occupied the theater hall. And when the credits started rolling, one of my fellow movie-goers nearly shouted, “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen!” before exiting the theater.
The Wachowskis knew the film was a financial risk. Likewise, the big-name Hollywood actors (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant) did not expect the film to be the next big hit. But they were compelled to join the cast for the artistic thrill of such a complex project. In a featurette accompanying the DVD release, Halle Berry said, “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaking experience. I will never be a part of another film like this in my life. I know it.”
Defined by both content and context
The movie is an artistic thrill, for sure. But its importance as a film goes beyond its production value: it speaks to the importance of all human life, especially in the face of both systematic and subtle oppression.
Check out this chart to see which characters are played by the same actors over the six stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant are featured in all six.
Here’s a breakdown of the oppression in each of the stories (spoiler alert!):
Situation: The Moriori are enslaved by the Maori in the Chatham Islands; black slaves are sold to plantation owners on both sides of the Pacific
Outcome: An escaped slave saves protagonist Adam Ewing’s life; he becomes an abolitionist
Situation: Queer musician Robert Frobisher is disowned by father and shunned by intellectual society for his “liaisons with prostitutes and sodomites”
Outcome: He commits suicide after finishing the Sextet
Situation: Journalist is disrespected because she is a woman. Lloyd Hooks tell “Ms. Rey,” “If all women looked like you, I might start to take this ‘women’s lib’ thing more seriously.”
Outcome: She lives up to her father’s legacy as a journalist by whistle-blowing a conspiracy by Big Oil
Situation: Elderly people lose their rights while living in a senior-living home; exemplified by Denholme Cavendish who says, “You wouldn’t believe how much people will pay to lock up their parents.”
Outcome: A group of the trapped residents successfully plot to escape
Situation: Cloned humans (“Fabricants”) are treated like machines with no civil rights in the service of ‘natural’ humans (“consumers”)
Outcome: One of the Fabricants becomes the voice of a movement to overthrow the corpocratic government
2321: Tribal Factions, “us versus them”
Situation: A cannibalistic tribe preys upon the herding tribe; Zach’ry brings a strong distrust to his interactions with Meronym, a “Prescient.” When Zach’ry pleads for his niece’s healing, he says, “Ain’t a Valleysman life worth th’same as a Prescient’s?”
Outcome: The cannibals are defeated; mocha-brown children have populated an off-world colony after their grandparents fled radioactive Earth
(Note: I have to point out that the movie also features the trauma people have inflicted upon the natural environment, such as rising sea levels in Neo Seoul and the radioactive post-apocalyptic Earth.)
So, on one level, the movie’s content speaks to the tragedies that happen when people take advantage of other people. But on another level, the movie’s context also contributes this major theme, as represented by Frobisher’s idea that “all boundaries are conventions”.
Let’s start with the directors. When they became famous in the 90s, the Wachowskis were known as “The Wachowski Brothers” in Hollywood, since the siblings were born male. One of the siblings, Lana, had already transitioned when they were filming “Cloud Atlas.” Then, in March 2016, the other sibling came out as trans. In a statement, Lilly Wachowski wrote about the difficulty of being trans in today’s world:
We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you. … But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Indeed, the lack of acceptance of trans people into mainstream Western society echoes the other forms of oppression featured in “Cloud Atlas” that are based on central facets of identity, including race, age, and sexuality. But Lilly pushes the discussion about conventions beyond these dimensions of identity. She suggests that our Western conventions about time and space are in themselves oppressive. In her statement, Lilly Wachowski cites critic José Muñoz, who wrote, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”
For me, this statement sharpens the themes of “Cloud Atlas.” In its representation of souls and relationships who return again and again in new lives, the film literally rejects our conventional sense of the importance of the “here and now” while insisting on “potentiality for another world.” Even in our darkest hours, the film suggests, there is reason to believe that we might find a brighter, better world waiting for us on the other side.
By Alisha Newton